N.T. Wright on Christmas & the Da Vinci Code

I was intrigued that the bestselling fiction book according to MPH Malaysia is still the Da Vinci Code (and the book seems to be generatinga lot of discussion and controversy and I heard some seminars coming up in KL/PJ to respond to it.)

Here’s NT Wright’s take on this in his pieace, Cracking the Christmas code

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In his seasonal message, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Dr Tom Wright, contrasts the conspiracy theory of the Da Vinci Code with the stranger-than-fiction truth of the Christmas story.

THE ‘hoax’ theory about Jesus is big business right now. The Da Vinci Code has hit the best-selling lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Maybe, we think, Jesus was just an ordinary man after all. Maybe, the later church just made it all up – Christmas, Easter, all that stuff about his being the ‘son of God’. Maybe, after all, he was married to Mary Magdalene, travelled about, died a normal death. Maybe, the early church invented an elaborate fiction, and we’ve been taken in by it all these years.

Great thriller, lousy history. Like most conspiracy theories, this one thrives on the absence of evidence. In fact, some of the key elements of the ‘hoax’ theory, particularly the idea of Jesus’s supposed marriage, weren’t even thought of for well over 100 years after his lifetime, quite possibly much later still.

The Christmas story, though, was circulating within the first 60 years of the Christian movement; it was already there in two different versions by the time the gospels were written down (some time between AD 60 and 90), and must have been circulating earlier. The story of Easter, of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, goes right back to the beginning, to the earliest Christian traditions we have, dating to within a year or two of the events themselves (roughly AD 30).

Something in our culture today craves conspiracy theories, particularly ones which pretend to debunk the whole Christian story. If you’ve been keeping an eye on this scene for the last 20 years or so, you will recognise the genre.

In the early 1990s an Australian called Barbara Thiering wrote a blockbuster claiming that she’d cracked the code in the Dead Sea Scrolls and that Jesus was not only married but divorced and remarried. The newspapers gave her serious attention for five minutes; serious scholarship didn’t even give her that.

Then in the mid-1990s a book called The Tomb of God cobbled together bits and pieces of recondite texts, and pseudo-archaeology, elaborate guesswork dressed up as historical research, all to make out that the Knights Templar had taken the body of Jesus and buried it in a hill in southern France (where, inconveniently, the owners won’t let you dig). Again, the authors claim to have cracked a secret code and so got at the truth which the church had hushed up. Unfortunately, none of the theories agree as to what the code – or the truth, for that matter – was in the first place.

Now we see something similar with the Da Vinci twist. Once you’ve read one of these books you’ve read them all. Dan Brown, the best-selling Da Vinci author, is the best writer I’ve come across in the genre, but anyone who knows anything about first century history will see that his underlying material is laughable.

Truth, as often, is stranger than fiction, and makes its way not with a flourish of trumpets but with the slow, sure tread of actual evidence, accumulating like grains of sand rising into a mountain, while the conspiracy theories build houses of cards which get blown away in the first breeze.

The evidence for Jesus and the origins of Christianity is astonishingly good. We have literally a hundred times more early manuscripts for the gospels and letters in the New Testament than we have for the main classical authors like Cicero, Virgil and Tacitus. Historical research shows that they present a coherent and thoroughly credible picture of Jesus, with all sorts of incidental details that fit the time when he lived, and don’t fit the world of later legend.

We are on solid ground when we talk of Jesus of Nazareth announcing God’s sovereign rule, clashing with the authorities, and being executed by the most brutal method then available. Still more remarkable, we are on solid ground when we speak of him being raised from the dead three days later, with his dead body transformed into a new sort of physical life which couldn’t be hurt or harmed any more. That’s another story for another time.

But what about the stories of his birth? Surely (someone is bound to say) they are just the sort of things people might write up later about someone they have come to regard as a hero? Isn’t the Christmas story just a mish-mash of pious legend?

That’s the really odd thing. The early writers who tell the Christmas story – Matthew and Luke, to be precise – are both very much aware of misleading legend. And they are clear that they want to avoid it.

Matthew’s gospel is firmly embedded in the world of Judaism, which was deeply suspicious of pagan culture with its legends of gods and heroes, some of whom of course had been born in, to say the least, unusual ways (Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus, for instance). Some of the pagan heroes, it was said, had been born from women without male intervention. This latter story was told of Augustus, who, significantly, was Emperor of the whole Roman world at the time of Jesus’s birth. If you’d said the phrase “the kingdom, the power and the glory” around the time Jesus was born, everyone would have thought you were talking about Augustus.

Luke sets the birth of Jesus precisely at that time, playing off Jesus the King of the Jews (and therefore, for someone soaked in the Jewish scriptures, the Lord of the whole world) against the pagan emperor himself. Augustus takes a census, to collect taxes from subjects near and far. As a result, Mary is taken to Bethlehem, the ancient city of the royal house of David, and there her son is born to rule the world.

Both Matthew and Luke knew very well what people might think at the strange story of Jesus’s birth. But they go ahead and tell it anyway. This is no fanciful legend, they say. At this point we are on bedrock.

Conspiracy theories are always fun: fun to invent, fun to read, fun to fantasise about. Truth is sometimes a bit bleak and harsh by comparison. That’s part of the point; real life sometimes is bleak and harsh. And God came to share it, to take the worst that it could do on to himself. That’s the point of the Christmas story.

Nothing Dan Brown or the other hoax-mongers have come up with can match this claim. Christmas isn’t about pious legends or cobbled-together conspiracies. When we crack the Christmas code, what we find is truth at once sober and serious and mindblowing in its implications. It’s about the living God being born as a baby, and growing up to conquer the world with the power of his death and resurrection.

Thrillers will last you a few days, but the excitement will soon wear off. The gospel story of Christmas, and all that follows from it, will keep you going right through your life. In fact, they’ll take you right through into the next one.
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